Starlink and other internet satellites could block our view of space

We are big fans of any sort of technology that addresses the problem of connectivity in the world.

TV White Spaces are a clever solution that really needs to gain more traction around the world and satellite internet is another smart solution that doesn’t require thousands of kilometres of cabling.

But satellite internet solutions at scale such as Starlink, the project from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, might be blocking our view of space.

This is according to a report created from the Satellite Constellations 1 workshop held from 29th June to 2nd July.

The workshop was attended by 250 astronomers, engineers, commercial satellite operators, and other stakeholders with the goal of quantifying the impact of, “huge ensembles of low-Earth-orbiting satellites (LEOsats) contaminating astronomical observations and to explore possible ways to minimize those impacts.”

Unfortunately there is bad news.

While the effects of LEOsats range from negligible to extreme, on the extreme end of the scale things look bad. When we say bad, we mean not seeing an asteroid destined for Earth bad.

SpaceX launched its first 60 Starlink satellites in 2019 to much applause. What made less of a noise however was concern from scientists which noted the brightness of these celestial bodies could interfere with observation.

The workshop found that as long satellites remain below 600 kilometres might not interfere with astronomical observations. Starlink’s orbital distance is below that figure at 550km but OneWeb’s satellite solution goes well above that at 1 200km.

Scientists believe that at this height the constellation of satellites will be visible all night long.

“These constellations could have serious negative consequences for many research programs at the world’s premier optical observatories. Depending on their altitude and brightness, constellation satellites could also spoil starry nights for amateur astronomers, astrophotographers, and other nature enthusiasts,” a report by experts explains.

There are thankfully solutions where this problem can be addressed but they require changes from satellite internet firms.

These solutions include:

  • Launch fewer or no LEOsats. However impractical or unlikely, this is the only option identified that can achieve zero astronomical impact.
  • Deploy satellites at orbital altitudes no higher than ~600 km.
  • Darken satellites or use sunshades to shadow their reflective surfaces.
  • Control each satellite’s orientation in space to reflect less sunlight to Earth.
  • Minimize or eventually be able to eliminate the effect of satellite trails during the processing of astronomical images.
  • Make more accurate orbital information available for satellites so that observers can avoid pointing telescopes at them.

Many might be asking why this is only being brought to our attention now.

The fact of the matter is that until SpaceX launched its satellites and enough satellites were in space to be able to observe any differences there wasn’t enough data to plot simulations.

This report is not to say that satellite internet is bad but rather that there are problems that can, and should be addressed.

Astronomers are reportedly engaging with satellite internet firms following this revelation so hopefully a middle ground can be met.

“I hope that the collegiality and spirit of partnership between astronomers and commercial satellite operators will expand to include more members of both communities and that it will continue to prove useful and productive. I also hope that the findings and recommendations in the SATCON1 report will serve as guidelines for observatories and satellite operators alike as we work towards a more detailed understanding of the impacts and mitigations and we learn to share the sky, one of nature’s priceless treasures,” said Patrick McCarthy, director at NOIRLab, one of the organisers of the workshop.

You can find the full report that came out of the Satellite Constellations 1 workshop here.

[Image – Credit: NOIRLab / NSF / AURA / P. Marenfeld]


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